De Niro and Stallone Don't Roll With the Punches in 'Grudge Match'

Films of this type only work when they have a certain self-irony.

Grudge Match Directed by Peter Segal; written by Tim Kelleher, Rodney Rothman; with Robert De Niro, Sylvester Stallone, Kevin Hart, Kim Basinger, Alan Arkin

In the one corner we have Robert De Niro, who in 1980 played boxer Jake La Motta in Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull”; in the other, Sylvester Stallone, who played boxer Rocky Balboa first in John J. Avildsen’s 1976 “Rocky” and, most recently, in the 2006 “Rocky Balboa,” which he directed himself. Now, let’s watch them fight it out and see how many rounds – or, rather, minutes – it will take for both of them to collapse on the floor of this unnecessary boxing comedy.

Some actors are better off not being reminded of their own glory days. De Niro is one of them. Almost every time I have seen him in a new movie in the last decades, I asked myself what happened to the actor who once thrilled us in “Mean Streets,” “The Godfather: Part II,” “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull.” How did De Niro turn from one of the great promises of his generation, an 
actor whose early roles rivaled Marlon Brando’s in their intensity, to someone who, while working steadily, makes us yawn whenever he appears on screen? What happened to his face, once an arena of emotional power, now a somewhat grotesque mask (especially when he smiles)?

Some actors survive by returning over and over to the roles that made them famous. Sylvester Stallone is one of them. Stallone is not an untalented actor or director: the first “Rocky,” which even won an Oscar, was the stubborn initiative of an unknown actor, and Stallone’s performance in it (which got him an Oscar nomination; he was also nominated for cowriting the screenplay) was touching and believable. That performance promised more than Stallone delivered in his later career as a megastar. He, too, has come to seem somewhat grotesque; his face looks mummified.

De Niro and Stallone’s comedy, their first movie together, seemed at times like a boxing version of Neil Simon’s hit 1975 comedy “The Sunshine Boys,” but without its wit, without the right balance of humor and pathos, and especially without Walter Matthau and George Burns, who played two estranged vaudeville performers who reunite for one last television appearance.

In Peter Segal’s “Grudge Match,” the old rivals are two boxers, Henry “Razor” Sharp (Stallone) and Billy “The Kid” McDonnen (De Niro). They met in the ring twice before: Henry won one match, Billy the other. The tiebreaker was supposed to take place in 1983, but one of them withdrew from the showdown. Why? Might it have had something to do with a woman (Kim Basinger)? Of course it did.

Kindhearted Henry went on to work in a shipyard and, with his scant income, helps care for his old manager (Alan Arkin), who lives in a nursing home. Billy, a drinker and gambler, lives off of his glory days. After their story is told on television, a slick promoter, Dante (Kevin Hart), whose father was responsible for Henry’s financial troubles, wants to use their characters in a video game. The scuffle that breaks out when they meet for the first time in decades is caught on video and goes viral.

Because an American movie about men is hardly ever complete without some mention of fatherhood, and because a movie of this kind needs a certain amount of saccharine, we also meet Billy’s son (Jon Bernthal), whom he has never met, as well as his little grandson, who will – spoiler alert! – cause Billy to change. Okay, that’s not really a spoiler.

If you want to see Stallone and De Niro fighting each other bare chested with their faces largely immobile, by all means, go see “Grudge Match”; everyone else can stay home. The plot never once surprises, there is not much in the way of character, and the occasional attempt at humor is pitiful. There have been a number of action movies in recent years that brought veteran actors back to the big screen; some – such as the two “Expendables” movies – have even been reunions.

Films of this type work only when they have a certain self-irony – of the kind seen, for example, in last year’s “The Last Stand,” with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Without that irony, they are just embarrassing, as “Grudge Match” clearly demonstrates.

I went to the movie primarily to see the first-ever collaboration of De Niro, associated with quality filmmaking, and Stallone, an icon of popular cinema, but even this aspect of “Grudge Match” is not enjoyable. A more talented director would have allowed the “summit” to generate some kind of cultural message, but Segal does not. De Niro and Stallone play with and in front of each other, but their encounter is sterile: there is no chemistry at all between the two men, who represent two poles of American filmmaking. “Grudge Match” ultimately knocks them both down.

AP